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Lawrence Culp New CEO at GE
Lawrence Culp, CEO of General Electric Co.

GE Profit Now a Footnote as Market Wrestles With Cash Troubles

Analysts largely expect GE to report a hefty cash burn for the quarter, although estimates on the size of the shortfall differ widely.

When General Electric Co. reports on the first quarter of its “reset year” on Tuesday, the cash flow of the troubled manufacturer will likely attract more attention than its earnings.

After a long and painful unraveling of the company over the past two years, GE is now in a rebuilding mode, a process that Chief Executive Larry Culp said would be a “game of inches.” Accordingly, the profit per share might just be a footnote, with the cash situation expected to reveal the pace and state of the recovery.

“As the dust settles on most of the flagged portfolio moves, and with a stubbornly wide disconnect between adjusted earnings per share and free cash flow, the debate on the stock continues to pivot around what ‘normalized’ free cash flow actually is,” JPMorgan analyst and long-time GE bear, Stephen Tusa, wrote in a note to clients. Tusa, who upgraded the stock to the equivalent of a hold rating in December, reversed his stance earlier this month, and said the significant rally in the shares this year suggested many investors were underestimating the severity of the challenges and underlying risks at GE.

GE shares have gained about 32% so far this year, compared to a 17% increase in the S&P 500 Index.

While analysts largely expect GE to report a hefty cash burn for the quarter, estimates on the size of the shortfall differ widely. RBC Capital Markets analyst Deane Dray has braced for a cash burn of about $4 billion, while Gordon Haskett’s John Inch said losing that much cash in the first quarter seems “highly doubtful.”

“We believe that magnitude of cash loss could be both highly problematic and poorly received by the bond market and debt ratings agencies,” Inch said. Inch’s first-quarter cash burn estimate stands at $2.4 billion to $2.5 billion.

What Bloomberg Intelligence Says

“GE’s first-quarter results could be upstaged by a status update on the Power unit and the company’s cash flow and liability challenges. Though operating results will remain depressed in the Power segment, progress on restructuring and potential signs of stabilization will be a focus in first-quarter results. Aerospace and Healthcare are likely to post solid organic growth and margins, yet will be overshadowed by dismal results in Power. Cash flow is expected to be negative, as restructuring costs and negative cash flow in Power and Renewables pressure results.” -- Karen Ubelhart, industrials analyst

By Esha Dey

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